Mari Biella's Reviews > The Little Stranger

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
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Aug 28, 2010

it was amazing
bookshelves: historical-fiction, supernatural, psychological

The psychological ghost story ... No blood, no guts, no rattling chains or subterranean torture chambers. Just careful, controlled, cumulative shivers that, at their best, force you to question what the nature of reality is, and where exactly the border between the thing perceived and the subject perceiving it lies. Do we trust our senses in trying to evaluate the nature of the world? If not, what other measures do we have recourse to; and, if so, do we have to take everything perceived, however seemingly absurd, as an indication of reality? Henry James explored this unnerving territory; so too did Shirley Jackson. Now Sarah Waters has launched another expedition, in a novel that both pays tribute to her esteemed predecessors and breaks new ground.

Post WWII, austerity Britain: a Labour government is in power; the National Health Service is on its way in, and the old social structure is on its way out. Rural physician Dr Faraday is in many ways representative of the changing times - of humble origins, he's a self-made man whose rise coincides with his social betters' fall. Yet he too seems in many ways uneasy about this quiet evolution, or revolution: in particular, he's worried about the impact of the NHS on his livelihood, while in more general terms he seems to yearn for the more settled and orderly world he remembers from his childhood. He's lived all his life in the shadow of the local manor house, Hundreds Hall, and the Ayres family, its owners. He remembers it, and them, as grand, impressive, enchanting; yet when he's called in to treat a supposedly sick maid, he finds dearth, decay and a kind of controlled desperation. The much-depleted Ayres family - tortured war veteran Rod, plain, hearty spinster Caroline, and their frail, embittered mother, Mrs Ayres - have property, but no money, no prospects and, seemingly, no place in a society that is leaving them behind. In time Dr Faraday becomes their confidante and friend and, briefly, Caroline's suitor; and in time, too, some very odd things start happening at the hall. Is there a ghost? Or are the family just haunted by their glorious past and uncertain future, by their own losses and pains and fear? Who is the "little stranger" of the title? You're left to ponder these questions for yourself, and it says something for Waters that, in an age impatient with subtlety, she trusts her readers enough to leave them unanswered.

This is a beautiful book: suggestive, poetic, dark and, yes, haunting. The one thing it isn't, in truth, is frightening, which may disappoint anyone looking for a good scare. Dr Faraday, the narrator, experiences very little personally, so most of the ghostly happenings are recounted second-hand by a sceptical rationalist who's quick to provide answers and accounts. In fact, it sometimes seems that Waters is as keen as anyone to explain everything away, and she's actually rather too successful at it: the chill factor quickly diminishes under Dr Faraday's cool scientific gaze.

Still, it would be churlish to complain too vociferously about it: this was never meant to be blood-curdling horror. It's a meditation on flux and decay, and the consequences of being on the losing side when the tide of history changes. If you like your supernatural served with brains, you'll love this.
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
August 28, 2010 – Shelved
August 28, 2010 – Shelved as: historical-fiction
August 28, 2010 – Shelved as: supernatural
August 29, 2010 – Shelved as: psychological

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